The Ashes 2015: The Odd Couple’s Big Test

In spite of the success they have shared, and in contradiction to every public declaration, anonymous murmurs continue to imply friction between Michael Clarke and Darren Lehman. Given their differing personalities and styles, this thought shouldn’t be a complete shock. And as form and fitness concerns concentrate Clarke’s mind on possible cricketing mortality, personal tension may be unavoidable. Should a call on the skipper need to be made, Lehmann will likely be involved.

Such rumblings are nothing new to the captaincy of Michael Clarke. A man who first walked to the crease as skipper accompanied by boos from a section of his home crowd, he would have long ago realised that nothing he could do would satisfy some. A whispering campaign has been a constant subtext to his reign as captain. It’s unlikely to stop now.

The Mates’ Club is a powerful factor in Australian sport, as it is in Australian life. Despite his status, Clarke remains a character not to the taste of some club members, and they seem never to have accorded him the full membership that came to Lehmann. But this mates business is not without its complications. Some prominent mates didn’t do Lehmann (or Peter Nevill, for that matter) any favours by speaking up on behalf of another mate (Brad Haddin) prior to Edgbaston. Given the debacle that ensued there, Lehmann could certainly do without the extraneous white noise now, as he and his out-of-form captain try to regroup for Trent Bridge.

Certain mates might be better served by contemplating their own contributions to Australia’s current predicament. By allowing short term success to obscure longer term planning, Australian cricket’s leadership selected a touring squad that hoped to ignore inevitably looming questions of team transition. In doing so, they increased the likelihood that those transition issues would have to be dealt with on the run during an Ashes series. Now that Dad’s Army faces a 2-1 deficit, Australia is worryingly short of clear answers for their many questions.

The best thing Australia has going for it is its opponent’s own vulnerabilities. The wild fluctuations of the three tests thus far are attributable to the collective weaknesses of both combatants. Test cricket remains the most challenging format by far, as it demands you show skill across a full complement of weapons. A team might survive by sledgehammer alone in T20, but that won’t get you through a test series. You must understand that the shield will be required to defend an inferior position, and that a skilled rapier thrust should be at hand to seize the vital moment. Neither team can currently boast the full repetoire.

Australia has been overly reliant on the sledgehammer to date, and no one apart from Chris Rogers has shown much familiarity with the concept of a shield. England have struck tellingly timed rapier blows through the agency of James Anderson and Chris Broad. They were significantly enhanced at Edgbaston by the rejuvenated Finn.  Owing to persistent generosity from Australia’s quicks, Root, Bell and Ali have cut a sufficient swathe to allow their side a current advantage. But Lyth remains a vulnerability, and the batting order as a whole has a suspect feel. Under pressure from a large Australian total at Lords, it buckled badly. Only Root and Cook have produced much beyond a cameo thus far.

Australia’s most pressing task is to compile sufficient runs. They will be thankful for Anderson’s absence, but Rogers and Smith still urgently need support. Warner has played well in bursts, but got out wastefully when set. His poor footwork against the early new ball continues to leave him vulnerable to a quick exit, but he has the ability to shape a match if he can master his impulses. Voges looks too suspect around off stump. Shaun Marsh hardly offers a compelling alternative, but he has form, and a past record of making one early big score when recalled. With two tests remaining, that may have to pass as sufficient. Mitch Marsh’s batting has looked naïve in English conditions, but his bowling has promised more than Watto. Will we be tempted to roll the Watto dice one more time?

Equally as pressing is the state of the captain’s mind. His batting at Edgbaston was abject, and for once it appeared to affect his captaincy, as he was tactically well off the pace at crucial moments. Is the state of his back inhibiting him? More likely, it is the lack of consistent batting opportunities the back troubles have cost him in the last twelve months. Questions regarding his future must be put aside until these two tests are done. The situation of his team demands he find a way to contribute. His comments show he is as conscious of this as anyone. If that means he drops to number five for the short term, the rights and wrongs can be argued at series end.

As if this wasn’t enough, serious questions hang over the bowling line up. Johnson and Starc were always a double risk; they either crash through or crash. The inexperienced Hazlewood has failed to adequately fill the gap left by Harris. The quicks have leaked runs too freely to sustain meaningful pressure, placing undue reliance on Lyon. Do we go for Siddle’s experience over Hazlewood? Or gamble on Cummings in place of Starc? Neither bet would be a sure thing. They may decide to stick with the current line up and just hope for improved performance. Regardless, the batsmen must give them some runs to defend.

The slightly desperate nature of all these options should be concerning someone at Cricket Australia. Adam Voges deserved his tour by weigh of runs, but what does it say that clearly the best batting option in Shield cricket was a 35 year-old? Not so long ago we would seldom fail to lecture English cricket about the manifest inferiority of County cricket, when compared to Shield cricket. Can we assert that with any confidence now?

The Big Bash has secured an important commercial place in the Australian summer, but that has been achieved at the considerable cricket expense of the Sheffield Shield, which has been shunted to the fore and aft extremes of the season, losing all continuity in the process. Informed opinions are universal that standards have dropped at first class level. What is proposed to be done? To judge by next season’s fixture, very little at present. So much for the Argus report.

The default attitude in modern Australian cricket seems set to premature hubris. Mitch Johnson’s golden 2014 Ashes summer, victory in South Africa, and a World Cup triumph at home were all noble achievements. Whatever their differences, Clarke and Lehmann have much to be proud of during their collective tenure. But at test level, success has largely been achieved on the back of some wonderful late-career revivals. Indian summers are no basis for enduring success. The Ashes are at stake, so Australia must muddle through these remaining tests as best they can, given the options. But no matter what befalls Australia at Trent Bridge and The Oval, many fundamental decisions will simply have been postponed, not avoided.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. An excellent summary as always, JB.
    Initially, I had no major issues with the selection of the touring squad, as it rewarded performance in the Sheffield Shield rather than the short forms. If this is to be the standard going forward, I am ok with it. But the onus is then on the states to give younger blokes a go (memo to trophy-hunting career coaches such as G Shipperd!). It was only 4 tests ago that the Voges selection looked to be a master-stroke, but he has definitely lost form and confidence, and now that selection is being questioned. Would anyone else have done better in English conditions?
    One of my bugbears (and I have a few) is Australian cricket’s eternal obsession with finding the next Keith Miller. There will never be another K Miller. So pick your best 6 batsmen and 4 best bowlers. Not a number 6 who is neither one nor the other. 4 bowlers (with a part-timer bowling 4-6 occasional overs) should be able to do the job! I am glad the Watto era is over, but M Marsh is only suitable coming in at 6 when the score is 4/350, not 4/50.
    Regarding the mates club, I sort of went along those lines during the SCG Test in Jan:
    https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/scg-test-australia-v-india-day-two-good-blokes/
    By the way, wasn’t the Argus Report a Melbourne daily newspaper that went out of business in the 1950’s?

  2. Regarding M Clarke: I am not sure that he has too many mates in the Test team.
    And I reckon M Hussey & S Katich would agree with that.

  3. Peter Flynn says:

    I think it is a rule and not a ruler.

    A ruler uses a rule to do the ruling.

    Now back to sensible discussion on an excellent article.

    P

  4. Flynny, Maxwell Smart once said:
    “Give a man an inch, and right away he thinks he is a ruler!”

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    As the offending editor in question, I thought about amending the “ruler” in the the blurb, but then I’d need to remove the resulting comments.

    I should of known better, but now I’ve been made the escape goat.

  6. The Argus was a Melbourne daily that folded in the early 1950’s. I’m unsure if it was called the Argus Report.

    Glen!

  7. Peter Flynn says:

    The real Russell Blew is between Marsh and Lehmann.

    Choice of keeper.

  8. Smoke –

    Maxwell Smart also said “Life is like a cumquat.”
    Then 99 asked “Life is like a cumquat?”
    And then Max replied “Life is not like a cumquat.?”

  9. John Butler says:

    Thanks for the comments gents.

    Smoke, the problem was some of the old guys had patchy-to-poor form for a good 12 months prior. And the replacements generally didn’t have much experience of English conditions. Re mates and good blokes, it seems the idea one is owed a place in the team has had a revival among some. This will always be a problem when you have an ageing team.

    PJF, everyone wants to be the ruler, never the ruled. And there are no hard and fast rules to decide. As for Marsh v Lehmann, see above comment.

    Swish, the editor always ends up the escape goat.

    Glen, I think the Argus Report has about as much life left in it as the Argus building.

    Dips,, in Max we trust.

  10. John, the Argus Report is like the Argus Newspaper ; It’s in the Garbage (Recycling) Bin of history.

    Glen!

  11. John Butler says:

    Glen, corporate memory often seems to have the lifespan of goldfish.

    3-10 in 10 balls!!

    Moment of truth time already for the skipper.

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